Dark Despair and Gallows Humor

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In order to not completely burn myself out on the new Morrissey disc, World Peace is None of your Business, which I could easily listen to a thousand times until I need to move on, I have been mixing it up with some Frank Sinatra.  I especially like Sinatra’s music where he is drowning in gloom.  This would be on albums like Only the Lonely and No One Cares.  These are albums filled with maudlin songs full of despair over lost love.  Unlike teenage pop songs, where no matter how sad the music is you know that they will eventually be OK, because they are young and will bounce back, this is music for adults, where all hope has gone out of the window.  In teenage pop, which I love as well, it feels like a tragedy, but we know it is not.  On these Sinatra albums they are the sound of a middle age man running out of time to correct his mistakes.  In fact, the narrator of each song, may be out of time, forever destined to walk the earth bearing the grief of his lost love, like Marley’s Ghost with his chains.

When things go this jet black, maybe it’s just me, but I also feel like they go through the looking glass and cross over to a certain kind of gallows humor.  This in no way dims the true sadness of these records, nor do I mean it in any kind of ironic sense as if I’m smirking at the albums.  But tragedy and comedy have always been very close to me.  It is through this sort of transition between tragedy and dark, dark comedy, that emotional release comes and the records actually become therapeutic.  Instead of wallowing in the despair of the narrator, as voyeurs into the world of the narrator, we can exercise our own emotions and transcend them.

Line of Best Fit Review of World Peace is None of Your Business

http://www.thelineofbestfit.com/reviews/albums/morrissey-world-peace-is-none-of-your-business-harvest?

The above review by Michael James Hall is the best review I have read yet of Morrissey’s new album, World Peace is None of Your Business.  I don’t agree with a few of his small criticisms,  and in the beginning he makes the same mistake of many journalists by saying that basically this is a return to form.  Although it has been five years since Morrissey put out a new album, and I do believe his new album to be the best of his newer releases, all of his last three studio albums have been essential listening for me.  Anyway, these are small complaints because Hall does largely get why this is simply a fantastic release both musically and lyrically.  This record is not only one of the crowning achievments in Mozzer’s career, but is absolutely one of the best albums put out by anyone in recent years.  I have only heard the album three times, as travel has prevented me from streaming it more, but each time my jaw has been on the floor.  If you are looking for intelligent music that is also subversive,  very melodic, and musically inventive,  look no further.  Once I get home, and get my hands on a physical copy, I intend to explain in full detail why I think so highly of this record.  I am clearly a fan, as anyone else reading this blog can tell, but this record belongs in any intelligent music lovers collection.  It is that good.  On first listen some the melodies seem complex and challenging, but by listen three every one  of them is ingrained in your head, never to leave.  Also, even if Morrissey had been taken off the record, his band is reaching new heights, creating music that is stunning in its own right.  I know that I have been writing a lot Morrissey lately, maybe too much to some reader’s consternation,  but I am simply over the moon about this album.  It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to…

You can stream the record here in full in the states:
http://www.npr.org/2014/07/06/326925957/first-listen-morrissey-world-peace-is-none-of-your-business

nme.com is streaming it in England. 

Fantastic Failure

This is the video for Fantastic Failure from Kristeen Young ‘ s V the Volcanic.  Her new album The Knife Shift is out now.  It is an extraordinary album that is not for the faint of heart.  The  Knife Shift  was produced by Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T-Rex,  Thin Lizzy, and Morrissey among many others) and features Dave Grohl on drums. She is a true original and I am very excited to announce that I will be posting an interview with Kristeen next month.  Stay tuned…

Lana Del Rey Ultraviolence Revisited

I have set several rules for myself for this blog.  One of the things that I have promised to do on this blog is to let my writings stand as they are, whether good or bad.  Sometimes I reread things I have written and cringe and sometimes I am quite proud.  I can always change my mind in writing something new, but I will not reedit anything I have written other than to correct spelling and grammar errors.  This way I can be as true as possible in the moment. 

One of the recent blogs that makes me cringe is my recent review of the Lana Del Rey album.  In order to point out the small faults that I found in it I feel that I was too harsh and did not explain in full what I actually like about it.  It is actually writing music reviews that I often feel the least adequate, despite music being a subject that I know a great deal about.  This is because often first impressions of a record are incorrect.  The best albums are often growers and ones that are great initially often wear out quickly. 

I feel and have always felt that the most essential part of any kind of music with a vocal is the vocal.  I could listen to a brilliant singer singing over a Casio keyboard.  Conversely I can’t stand even the most brilliant musical offerings if the singer is singing in a voice that doesn’t register emotionally with me and whose words are full of clichés.  The human voice in song is the best window into someone’s soul.  And whatever criticism one throws at Lana Del Rey, I believe that in her singing she has found her own unique voice.  It is instantly recognizable and it is filled with beauty and pain.  Singing is not something that can be faked.  Although I feel slightly that she could have been done a better service by her collaborators on her new record, this by no means gets in the way of me enjoying the record overall or feeling that it has value as a piece of art.  In fact it is quite possible that as I continue to listen to it I will grow to like the very things that at first threw me off.  I know that this is a record that I will continue to spin for years to come.  It has a damaged late night feeling that sounds fantastic once the sun has gone down. 

How do you articulate that something is lacking, while at the same time making it clear that even with its faults it far surpasses many of the other things on the airwaves?  This is tricky business.  Are the arrangements as well done as a Dusty Springfield record?  The answer would be no.  Are they better than many other things happening in mainstream pop at the moment?  The answer to that would be yes.  Both questions are both fair and unfair.  You want to judge something in and of itself, but it is hard to not compare it to what has come before it and what is going on around it.  When you talk about a piece of art you must try to find that balance between taking it for what it is and also trying to look at it in it’s place in the greater spectrum of things. 

From making records myself I know how many things are out of one’s hands.  A bad mix can take the air out of a good arrangement.   Even for someone like Lana Del Rey who probably has a large budget, there are still budgetary concerns and time restraints.  You are also in the hands of other musicians, producers, and engineers.  You start with an idea in your imagination and slowly reality chips away at it.  Sometimes this can be to the benefit of something and sometimes not.  That is just part of life and part of the process of creating something that involves other people.  One has to fight for things that one believes in and also learn to let certain things go. 

So when I criticize something that I like all of this is weighing upon me.  I write quickly, another one of my rules, to try to get as close to the emotion that I am feeling as best possible.  Sometimes emotions can lead you astray. 

In trying to point out this particular record’s faults I feel that I did not do its strengths justice.  Whatever the perceived media image of her it is clear that she is not playing by any rules other than her own.  The record is dark and murky and displays uncomfortable emotions at times.  This is not the kind of music that is going to get played on morning radio as people try to forget the day ahead of them, unless somewhere there is someone in power that is a fan that slips it in.  It sounds timeless, but could not have been made at any time other than now.  This is the sound of a real human voice that feels the struggle of being alive.  She sounds older than her years and beaten down by the world, but somehow beautiful and fearless despite this.  Even though I feel there are some things in the production that could be better, she was brave enough to make a record that didn’t kowtow to modern recording trends.  Yes, there are some faults with this record, but maybe it is all the more human because of it.  I am sure that I will keep listening to it and as I change so will my opinion of it.  Whatever it is though, it is not disposable. 

Earth is the Loneliest Planet Single Review

Earth is the Loneliest Planet is Morrissey’s simplest lyric in some time, maybe since Best Friend on the Payroll or Do Your Best and Don’t Worry from Southpaw Grammar.  I am probably missing something but those two jump out.  (I actually like both those songs and especially love Best Friend on the Payroll.  I’ve always found Southpaw to be his most underrated album.  Boz Boorer and Alain Whyte kill it on guitars on that record.  The whole band is great.) The lyrics are basically the title of the song with a couple key phrases to add some light and shade to it.  And for those of you that think he is not living up to his Smith’s heritage all I have to say is Some Girls Are Bigger than Others or Never Had No One Ever.  Morrissey has been writing lyrics this way since he started.  And if the lyrics are simple in terms of the amount of lines that he has written, trust me, as you play the song numerous times different nuances make themselves known. 

The melody is textbook Morrissey; it’s a unique melody that sticks in your craw once you have heard it several times.  What makes this track so outstanding, where it really raises the bar, is the music.  Flamenco guitar, French café sounding accordion, ghostly female backing vocals, and a take the paint off the barn guitar solo are all there together among other things! 

What is really interesting to me now that we have heard three songs from the album is how adventurous and outward looking the production and music is.  Along with the three sets of lyrics, that all seem to look out at the world, the music really has a worldly quality to it without being what you would call world music.  The writing is still very much in the World of Morrissey, but each song has different flourishes that make you think of different cultures.  When Morrissey does what my brother and I call the “victory lap” in his Autobiography, when he talks about all of the success his music has met in all corners of the globe in the last part of his book, it makes me think that he has folded all of these places back into his music.  The fact that has been able to do this while still retaining a very unique musical and lyrical identity is really exciting.  Please let the next month go quickly, I want this record!   

Thoughts on Autotune

In music many people talk about autotune and if it should be used or not.  Autotune is a program that will allow an engineer to fix bad notes by a singer by shifting the pitch of a note a singer is singing.  Autotune is also used to an extreme to make voices sound robotic and unnatural.  Some people believe that autotune is cheating.  They think that it allows people that have no talent to make records.  This is true.  Because of this some people are vehemently against it.  Other people will use it on every song to smooth out a singers voice and see no problem using it if it makes for a great record. 

I’ve been listening to The Afghan Whigs lately.  Greg Dulli has a voice that can go from a low sensual baritone to a high scream.  His singing can be a little pitchy, though not very much, but in a way that completely serves the song.  Vic Chesnutt’s voice is often pitchy, but again his unique voice serves his songs perfectly.  Most of The Afghan Whigs records were made before autotune.  If you use autotune too much, you rob people of their personality.  Things that are too perfect often lack soul.  If some of those records were made now would some L.A. studio asshole try to fix them? 

Singing is all about letting someone’s soul and personality come through.  Lou Reed only had about a two note range, but his voice was the perfect vehicle for his lyrics.  Meanwhile Sam Cooke could sing like an angel, but again his voice perfectly fit his material.  There is no such thing as good or bad singing, only singing that either works with the given material or not.  A singer either has a personality that makes you connect with a piece of music or they do not.  Any of us could have a debate about which singers have personality and which do not, but that comes down to taste.  There are many singers that have technically great voices, but that make you feel nothing.  Most modern country stars are in this bracket as far as I’m concerned. 

We’ve been singing since the dawn of time.  The right singer with the right song has a kind of primal energy to it that allows us to feel emotion, even if we can’t understand the lyrics.  As we become more technically advanced we should not let technology rob us of individual expression. 

However, all of that being said, I think there are two uses where autotune is valid.  Record budgets weren’t what they used to be.  I read that John Mellencamp spent $300,000 dollars making a record and this was before he was a big star!  That shit doesn’t happen too often anymore.  Only the most popular artists these days have that kind of budget.  Many artists might not have the time to spend hours getting the perfect take.  If you get a really exceptional take and use autotune to fix one or two bad notes then I don’t see any real problem with it.  This is actually what the program was designed for.  It will keep the costs of recording down and allow you to possibly use the overall best performance.  With that kind of use autotune might actually allow for a more emotional take.  If you are only using it very sparingly you are not getting in the way of a singers humanity, and are only allowing for a really great take to get its due. 

I also don’t have a problem with people that use it to extremes given the right circumstances.  If you are actually trying to create something that is unnatural or inhuman then it is just a tool at your disposal.  Daft Punk, who dress like robots, use it in this light all the time and it fits what they do.  I have also heard David Lynch use it in a way that is uncanny.  It is so unnatural that it actually creates a feeling of unease.  He is using it as a tool to create the desired emotion, and not as someone that is using it for a crutch. 

Like most things autotune is best either used very little or a lot.  It’s that middle road that leads to mediocrity.  In art, the middle of the road is always the worst place to be. 

Looking Up in Heaven

Sunday morning I felt afraid
Someone leaving in the world today
I looked low, I looked high
Only missed one friend
Before I go, I look high again

So I went lookin’ up in heaven
But you wasn’t anywhere in sight
They asked me to stick around
But without you it just wasn’t right
I went lookin’ up in heaven
But you wasn’t anywhere in sight

Sunday evening I get the blues
Someone sleeping’ in their tennis shoes
I looked low and I looked high
Only missed one friend
Before I go, I look high again

So I went lookin’ up in heaven
But you wasn’t anywhere in sight
They asked me to stick around
But without you it just wasn’t right
I went lookin’ up in heaven
But you wasn’t anywhere in sight

I met a little angel, she asked me if I could step outside
“I’ll make you forget her, I’ll make you forget her
Baby, won’t you watch me fly?”

Years go by now, now I have grown
Sunday night and I ain’t alone
So you look low and I look high
And miss another friend
Before I go, I look high again
(I love you)

Lookin’ up in heaven
But you wasn’t anywhere in sight
They asked me to stick around
But without you it just wasn’t right
So I went lookin’ up in heaven 
But you wasn’t anywhere in sight

They invited me to stick around, you know
But I told ‘em there was another place I had to check out tonight

I went lookin’ up in heaven
But you wasn’t anywhere in sight

Looking Up in Heaven by Paul Westerberg.  I thought I’d post these in honor of the Replacements reunion that is going on.  This song if from one of my favorite Westerberg albums, Folker.  This song always makes me think of Mark Twain and about how he thought the traditional view of heaven was everything that people wanted to avoid in real life.  A quote from Mr. Twain:  “Singing hymns and waving palm branches through all eternity is pretty when you hear about it in the pulpit, but it’s as poor a way to put in valuable time as a body could contrive.”

New Morrissey Lyrics

Mad in Madrid
Ill in Seville
Lonely in Barcelona
Then someone tells you and you cheer

Hooray, hooray
The bullfighter dies
Hooray, hooray
The bullfighter dies
And nobody cries
Nobody cries
Because we all want the bull to survive

Gaga in Málaga
No mercy in Murcia
Mental in Valencia
Then someone tells you and you cheer

Hooray, hooray
The bullfighter dies
Hooray, hooray
The bullfighter dies
And nobody cries
Nobody cries
Because we all want the bull to survive

The Bullfighter Dies from Morrissey’s upcoming World Peace is None of Your Business.  The live versions of three of the new Morrissey songs can be found on YouTube.  The songs you can hear are World Peace is None of Your Business, The Bullfighter Dies, and Earth is the Loneliest Planet.  This one sounds like a classic pop song with his usual flair for drama.  I definitely had a good laugh while listening to the song for the first time.  I only wish the record were out today.  Just thought I’d post these for those of you that are also fans.

Two Music Trends that Need to Die

There are two trends in music that I am truly tried of.  One of the proliferation of Americana and roots music everywhere.  Now occasionally you find something as brilliant as Marah’s Mountain Minstrelsy, but most often this music is backwards looking.  It apes the past without adding anything new to the game.  It is confined in a prison of its own making.  It’s also pretty disingenuous at times.  I remember someone telling me that there was a cowboy bar in Central Pennsylvania, the area from which I am from.  I don’t remember there being any cowboys in PA, at least not in the Western sense of the term.  Sure, there are people that ride horses and live on farms, and at one point we did interact with Indians, but it was never Deadwood.  Also, how many people do I see now out at bars that have probably never even seen a horse that are dressed in head to toe cowboy gear, or like they just got out of the Dust Bowl?  If you want to admit it is Halloween every day that is fine.  But at least admit that you are wearing a costume. 

The other trend is people burying vocals in the mix.  Occasionally you have someone like The War On Drugs that creates such a strong sense of atmosphere and arrangement that the music becomes beautiful in a nonverbal way.  But most of the time this just seems to be a way of getting away with the fact that you have nothing to say.  If you can’t write lyrics just be The Ventures, or be an accountant.  But please, quit clogging the airwaves with music that sounds like it should be played in a Celesta commercial.  In some ways you are already in a Celesta commercial because you are making me want to take antidepressants.  A whole generation with nothing to say, I hope not. 

The Evil Empire of Everything

The newest Public Enemy album, The Evil Empire of Everything, is simply one of the best, most powerful albums I have heard in a long time.  It is also the most powerful political statement put on record since Neil Young’s Living with War.  I am a little late to the party.  I say the newest album because this record came out in 2012.  But better late than never, because this record is absolutely essential. 

In the late 80′s Public Enemy put our a trilogy of ground breaking albums.  From It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back to Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Back they were pretty much perfect.  I kinda lost the thread after that, as some label problems took them out of the public eye, and quite frankly my tastes changed.  Recently, looking for music of substance, I have decided to revisit those albums, and eventually decided I wanted to hear something I hadn’t heard before.  Knowing that I was going on the road this weekend, and that I would have 20 plus hours in the van over four days, I decided to give their newest album a shot.  I am glad I did because this album simply blows my mind.  It is fearless politically and top notch musically.

The sound of Public Enemy is every bit as important as the lyrics.  Even when Chuck D isn’t saying something explicitly politically, the sound of the band conveys revolution.  On their classic run of albums Public Enemy created a dense chaotic wall of sound.  They did this by combining an untold number of samples into something truly original.  Both the sound of the band and the structure of their records was like a collage.  They took little pieces of different music, sound effects, and dialouge, and spliced them together until these different sounds became something greater than the some of their parts.  Because of changes in copy right laws, this approach is really no longer possible.  I have no way of knowing if this is true, but I read that their album Fear of a Black Planet has so many samples on it that each copy sold would have resulted in five dollars they would have had to pay out under existing copyright laws. 

Surprisingly, although being slightly less dense, they have been able to replicate the sonic chaos of their early albums.  There are still drum loops that sound like they came off old funk records, electric guitars, interesting sonic treatments, and thought provoking dialouge. 

The album begins, after a brief bit of treated soul music, with George Zimmerman’s 911 phone call on the night Trayvon Martin was killed.  There is an another song called Beyond Trayvon where members of Public Enemy trade verses with their sons to talk about the fact that it is still dangerous to be black in America, even after electing a black president.  Although this could seem, upon first inspection, as something that will date quickly, this incident is used as a jumping off point to talk about larger questions of race that will unfortunately be relevant for a long time to come. 

One of the things that is so great about the lyrics on this album is that Chuck D and the other MC’s seemed to have widened their nets.  Although the lyrics on this record definitely come from a black perspective, they also spend plenty of time going outside their tribe talking about much larger issues of social and economic justice.  One of the most important things in life is learning empathy for people outside of your tribe.  If this perspective cannot be reached there is no chance for unity and therefor building the coalitions that must be made to tackle the serious problems facing the world.  Chuck D and the rest of Public Enemy find commen cause with illegal immigrants and other members of the economically downtrodden.  This gives their album a much more universal appeal. 

What are other topics talked about on this record?  They touch upon the horrible state of the media as they have done before on Don’t Believe the Hype.  They also talk about war, the way the United States is percieved throughout the world, the housing crisis, problems with fame and materialism in the culture, the war on terror, the decline of meaning in the music business, and the environment among other issues.  Only Flavor Flav’s 31 Flavors provides some comic relief in the storm.  This also unfortunately makes it the one track, however enjoyable it is in and of itself, that doesn’t fit the themes of the record. 

Although their songs take strange detours like their classic run of albums, where songs were often spliced with spoken word or insturmental parts that do not resemble the main tracks, this happens less often.  However this provides the album with a stronger song oriented approach than in the past.  In some ways this actually makes the album more enjoyable on repeated listens.  Although the album lacks some of the mad genius of something like Fear of a Black Planet, in some way this album is actually more listenable because of it.  Many more of these songs have a single quality to them.  There is still enough of mini pieces to give the album a unified feel. 

Another thing that I like about the album from a lyrical perspective is that, although again they touch upon many stories ripped from the headlines, they use these stories to jump off into wider criticisms of modern America.  This album will again, unfortunately, be relevant for years to come. 

Although PE addresses many problems in our country the music still has a take no prisoners approach that is inpiring.  Thematically the record is dark, but the album has a bravado that makes you feel as if there is still hope to change things before it is too late.  It is a magic trick because except for one song this music does not feature uplifting major key melodies.  It is musically a tough record, like most of their work, that gets one ready for battle.  While it does acknowledge the problems of the world head on, it will not be defeated by them. 

If you are looking for music of substance that is gauranteed to be thought provoking, look no further.  This is powerfully passionate stuff.  PE have added another classic album to their cannon.  I can’t reccomend this album highly enough.  It features the trifecta of interesting music and arrangments, thought provoking lyrics, and especially in Chuck D, a voice for the ages.  Although his voice is more ragged than in the past, it still sounds like he is casting thunder from the mountaintop.  Get this album, and get ready for the struggle.